By Jim Morris
On any given day swimmers involved in the Montreal Intensive Training Program find themselves rubbing shoulders with Canadian athletes who are Olympic medallists or world champions.
Having this contact with athletes who have climbed to the top echelon of their sport helps build the winning culture head coach Tom Rushton wants ingrained in the swimming program.
“The athletes are involved in this environment that pushes them toward excellence every day, which I think is a neat place to be,” said Rushton.
“We’re trying to build our program. We’re trying to find athletes we think can move in that direction but also have the right attitude and belief in what they are trying to do. For us it’s not just about getting people in, but getting the right people in.”
That bar for excellence was raised even further this winter when the swimmers travelled to Kingston, Jamaica, for a training camp. While there they received a surprise visit from Olympic champion and world record holder Usain Bolt.
“I’ve never seen some of the athletes actually speechless before,” chuckled Rushton.
Bolt’s embracing personality proved athletic success doesn’t have to come at the cost losing your humility.
“It opens their eyes to the humanness of these people when you hang out with them in a living room,” said Rushton. “Not everybody can be that good, but there are certainly elements of that you can take away and try to incorporate into what you want to do.”
The swimmers involved in the ITP – Montreal train at the Olympic Park Sports Centre. Other national sports organizations sharing the facility include diving, women’s water polo, synchronized swimming, judo, fencing and short-track speed skating. The sports may be different but all share the same goal of someday reaching an Olympic podium.
“In order to be in the locker room you have to be targeted by Sport Canada,” said Rushton. “It means different things for different sports but it always is going to be a high standard.
“We are really trying to have that environment where everybody is going toward the same goal, no matter what sport that is.”
Swimming Canada launched the ITP – Montreal last April for high performance athletes working towards the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and beyond.
Rushton describes the Montreal program as one whose goal is to start swimmers down the path to future success. The program, working in partnership with Fédération de Natation du Québec, has no club affiliation and is open to any qualified swimmer. Five athletes – Mathew Loewen, 2012 Olympian Barbara Jardin, Daphne Danyluk, Liam Desjarlais and Mary-Sophie Harvey – train full time with the program. Another, Ashley McGregor, will be training with the group after returning from Texas A&M University.
“The goal of our high performance centres and our Montreal Intensive Training Program is to podium at the world championship and the Olympics,” he said. “We are trying to move ourselves forward in the direction where that will be an immediate goal in the future.”
John Atkinson, Swimming Canada’s high performance director, is pleased with the program’s progress.
“Tom Rushton is doing a great job as the head coach in building the program and maintaining strong links with the coaches of club and university programs in both Montreal and Quebec, which is great to see,” said Atkinson. “Tom is also very involved with FNQ and working again with coaches and athletes on the provincial program.”
Harvey has shown the potential to challenge for a podium at future Olympics. The 15-year-old from Trois-Rivieres, Que., won a silver medal in the 200-metre individual medley at the Junior Pan Pacific Championships last August in Hawaii and anchored the medley relay team that finished second.
“Based on those results we are hoping to go forward,” said Rushton. “For her a big step would be to make the senior team.”
The group trains at the pool built for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. About $60 million in renovations have been done to the Olympic Park Sports Centre to upgrade the facility.
“It’s way above and beyond what I expected,” said Rushton. “Everything in the pool is new, down to the new lane ropes, new tiling, new lights. Everything about the facility has been replaced.”
Athletes also have access to a sport medicine and sport science building.
The seeds to the Jamaica training camp, and meeting Bolt, were planted in October. While attending the Pan American Sports Organization conference in Colorado Springs, Colo., Rushton met Wendy Lee, coach of the Kingston Tornadoes Swim Club and Hillel Academy.
In Kingston the Canadian swimmers were given access to an outdoor 50-m pool built for the 1966 Empire Games and a use of a weight room used by the Jamaican national netball team. The swimmers gave a free clinic, and Rushton went on the national radio station to talk about swimming. He said the country was really tuned into swimming thanks to the recent success of Alia Atkinson, the 100-m breaststroke gold medallist at last year’s world short-course championships.
Having Lee was invaluable because she was able to show the swimmers places most tourists never see and introduce them to the local people. That fit into Rushton’s goal of having the trip more than a training camp. He hopes the experience will help in the future when the swimmers deal with different foods and cultures while attending international competitions.
“We wanted to have a very strong training experience,” he said. “We also wanted to move the athletes outside of their comfort zone.
“They had to make some adjustments in terms of what they were going to eat and how they were going to manage it. Overall, the whole culture was very welcoming. Everyone was really friendly.”
During the first week of the trip the Canadians rented apartments, but for the second they were housed with local athletes. One of those parents was able to arrange Bolt’s visit.
Rushton said Bolt showed a genuine interest in the Canadian athletes, especially the open-water swimmers that were training with the group.
“One of our open-water guys does really long distance swims like seven or eight hours,” said Rushton. “Watching him trying to explain to Usain Bolt swimming for eight hours … Usain’s face was pretty priceless.”